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Shot in Taiwan, but set in a "modern" rural China, this rocket-paced comedy was director Yuen Woo Ping's (belatedly successful) attempt to propel debuting lead Donnie Yen into stardom. A fairly complex plot, skillfully driven through almost continuous slapstick action, is used to educate the viewer in the "soft fights hard" philosophy of Chinese Tai Chi boxing, which becomes a unifying theme underlying the stylish and inventive choreography from the Yuen Clan. This early Yuen-Yen partnership has large dollops of the comedic excellence that would reach maturity in the team's later efforts, such as Tiger Cage, and exhibits well the solid marial arts skills of the Yuens.

It kicks off with a couple of scenes establishing cool-guy Yen's superior speed and strength: a snotty rich-kid, showing off his new bike, to the general annoyance of all, is out-biked, out-fought, and out-smarted; Yen's younger brother is beaten in a sack-carrying competition. Yen's abilities in "hard forms" are effectively established.

A classic scene follows, in which a large dumpy woman (Lydia Shum, credited as Lydia Shin) is taking her two bulky bed quilts to market. She must cross a bridge, but the weight limit is 250 pounds, and her quilts take her 20 pounds over. Unfazed, she decides to cross anyway, juggling her quilts to keep one in the air and so stay under the critical weight. Not content with this exhibition of dexterity, she improvises out loud a poetic description of her technique as she crosses - until a bird distracts her, and she ends up in the water.

Needing dry clothes, she meets Yen in a clothes shop. An altercation develops, and she demolishes Yen in the ensuing fight.

Meanwhile, the bike-riding Rich Kid plots his revenge on Yen - an attack which backfires badly. Permanently scarred by the incident, the snotty one becomes a drooling idiot. His father is a more serious proposition, and isn't pleased: "They've ruined my only son". The son was slightly spoiled already, but he has a fair point. As is usual in Hong Kong cinema, such an injustice must be avenged, at whatever cost.

Back home, Yen and his brother are hungry. Having only one pear to eat between them, Yen decides to split it. "That's a bad omen" says Brother, while Yen scoffs at his superstition.

Ultimate hard form practitioner, a wildman professional assassin named Killer Bird (Yuen Hsin Yee) is in training. Woo Ping rubs our faces in this, showing the hairy and outrageously energetic madman splitting thick logs with his bare hands (echoing Yen's forceful splitting of the pear) and hammering in nails with his elbows and forehead. He opens his mail, to find an offer from Rich Kid's father:

"I will pay you 20,000 dollars to wipe out the Chen Do family."

Killer Bird swiftly dispatches Yen's father and brother, burning down the house for good measure. But he has a human side, as we see when he visits his young son Tiny Bird at the children's nursery

After discovering the crime, Yen wanders the streets. Attempting to help an old puppet show proprietor (Yuen Cheung Yan), who's beset by rival showmen, Yen manages to wreck the poor old man's show-tent and set his beard on fire. The puppet master insists Yen work off the debt at his house, and we learn he's married to the fat woman who fell off the bridge.

As it turns out, these two are a pretty weird couple..

Yen's attempts at doing the housework are a disaster - "Why are you so clumsy?", "I'll work harder" (breaking more furniture) - and after Puppet Man has a chance to show off his superiority in broom fighting, there are arguments. Yen goes back to town, where he spots the sickeningly cute Tiny Bird being kidnapped by a couple of evil rogues. A fight ensues. Taking the little mite back to the children's nursery, Killer Bird makes Yen as the missing member of the Chen Do family and tracks him down. They fight, in an amusing pastiche of 70's chop socky. Killer Bird is getting by far the best of it, but Yen escapes back to the crazy-house run by Puppet man and the Quilt lady.

The scene is now set. Yen's forceful response to force throughout the early part of the film has created a situation of escalating violence, and he now must face an implacable opponent whom he has no hope of beating. This classic martial arts flick dilemma can only be resolved by the appearance of a teacher, and the learning of a new technique with which the enemy can be defeated. The Puppet Man, who has by now convinced the audience of his superior skills, if not Yen, decides the time is ripe to reveal that he's a master of Tai Chi. Hearing Yen describe the fight, he claims he could have won: "I'd use my soft style to counter his hard style".

Once Yen is suitably convinced the old man really can fight, the lessons begin - one of the most entertaining teacher-student sequences in the genre follows, complete with the brief spoken instructions that characterise the form:

"Tai Chi is split into male and female."

"Chest in, round back, shoulders down. Wrists limp, waist relaxed, feet apart, backside out.
... You idiot, you look like an ape."

"You must always make use of your opponent's strength. To move with your hands to absorb the force of his strike. That is the essence of Tai Chi boxing."

"Tai Chi boxing beats movement by being still"

The basic lesson, soft and hard, is repeated in several episodes, along with advice on distraction, conserving energy, and so on, with the aid of several typically bizarre training props. Puppet Master is a good teacher, and Yen soon learns.

After a little directorial meditation on difficulties and joys attending the entertainers' profession, as Puppet Master reflects on his puppeting art, and Yen, acting a puppet, puts on a show himself, Yen finds himself in the Rich-Kid household, and must now employ his new Tai Chi skills to save his life, first fighting the classic baddie eagle style kungfu of the father, and then in the inevitable finale when he takes on the deranged and ultra-powerful Killer Bird.

Being a little out of phase with the popular trend at the time, Drunken Tai Chi flopped on its initial release. But it has aged well, and is now recognised by many as one of the Yuens' best. Hardly any time is wasted on dialogue with no physical comedy or action and infectious insanity is given free rein in the script, characterisation and choreography.

Though Yen's relentless coolness sometimes drags a little, overall the acting is effortlessly effective, and Yuen Cheung Yan's performance as the Puppet Master is pretty much a unique contribution to the genre. Along with the above, you also get quilt-making kungfu, Donnie Yen doing the robot, moonwalking and body popping, and many other treats. I consider it an essential part of the kung-fu canon.

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Dragon's Group film co., 1984.

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